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RE: Misses the point

Your misreading of Lukacs’s essay is astonishing.

After I wrote that, I read a little more of his stuff. There’s some I agree with, but on the whole I find his style continental philosophy to lack much appeal.

I think given just this one article, I’m not sure I agree that I misread him — perhaps he didn’t articulate his position clearly.

In any case I disagree that he’s calling subjectivity as much an illusion as objectivity. The position he articulates in this article is essentially a subjective one, claims to the contrary notwithstanding.

Claiming it’s “personal but not subjective” is nonsense. That’s the central distinction between the notions of “objective” and “subjective” in philosophy.

Lukacs: “History: because in the entire universe we are the only historical beings. Our lives are not automatic; we are responsible for what we do, say, and think.” That sounds nothing like a license to abandon objectivity for emotionalism. On the contrary, it is an invitation to abandon emotionalism and naive objectivity for a life well lived – where one suffers and loves and knows that he suffers and loves, where knowledge is forever and ever inevitably participatory.

“A life well-lived” is an emotional goal, and a wholly subjective one. I think it fair to suggest that if, at the peak of his power, you were to ask Hitler if his life thus far were well-lived, including his efforts toward a “final solution”, he’d most likely have said, “Yes”.

We are responsible for what we do. And, as “saying” is a kind of “doing”, we’re quite clearly responsible for what we say. It’s not at all clear that we have any control over what we think (don’t think about an elephant), and less what we feel, so I don’t think I’d agree that we’re “responsible” for those.

Throughout the article, he’s got two threads that keep resurfacing, and both of which destroy the credibility of what he’s saying, as I see it. First, he sees the inability to achieve complete objectivity as reason to not bother trying. Second, he’s got a very dualist notion of the mind.

That may work for you. I think it’s wrong.

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The thing I love about you and virtually the only thing I know about you are the same: you provoke me, scottb. You provoke me.

I suppose it is possible that Lukacs articulated his position unclearly, but I find that dubious given the quality of his writing. I think perhaps you’re misunderstanding what he’s doing. He is critiquing the philosophical debate between objectivity and subjectivity, you’re right, but not by holding for subjectivity, as you allege. Instead, his critique references a philosophy of history. From his study of history and his life, he has concluded that knowledge is personal and participatory – and that, as such, it cannot be reduced to either objects or subjects or objective and subjective approaches.

I suspect that what is bothering you is that you want to defend objectivity because of a commitment to science. Although Lukacs is sober about technological and scientific progress, he is not arguing that using objectivity does not produce knowledge. He is saying that objectivity in history rarely produces accurate understanding because history is not merely what happened, but what people think happened, and what people think it means. It is therefore a very different enterprise than asking how to fly to the moon. History is after the why, the wherefore, and significance (but, again, not statistical significance, but human significance and meaning – which is achieved in communities, not individually).

“A life well-lived” is an emotional goal, and a wholly subjective one. I think it fair to suggest that if, at the peak of his power, you were to ask Hitler if his life thus far were well-lived, including his efforts toward a “final solution”, he’d most likely have said, “Yes”.

No, no, no. Again, this is precisely what Lukacs is not saying. He wants us to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that morality and a good life (our history) are emotional or subjective goals. They are very much not. The example you give proves the point. We can surmise that Hitler at the peak of his powers would have been some time in the late spring or early summer of 1940 until that fateful day of June 22, 1941. By this time Hitler was addicted to prescription drugs, obsessively working through all hours of the night and sleeping through his mornings into the afternoon, and plagued by a sense that time was working against him. This, not to mention the fact that he had a pathological attachment to his mother, an undying hatred for his father, and a sociopathic hatred of the Jews all his life even up to the very moment of his suicide, suggest that asking Hitler if his life was well-lived would be completely and utterly meaningless. It would likewise be meaningless to create an objective questionnaire asking evil dictators if, at the peak of their powers, they believed they were really living.

What is wrong is making a well-lived life or historical knowledge a matter of emotion or subjectivity OR objectivity. These things they are not. A well-lived life is a function of memory, action, and meaning made in connection with other people. It cannot ever be reduced to a mathematical equation because it depends on choices, and grace, and wit, and irony, and good fortune. It also cannot be reduced to asking someone if they think their life was well-lived. This would be completely absurd. It is a question that cannot be settled in this manner for it is a function of commitment and meaning in connection with others.

As Herodotus records in Book I of his Histories, this is exactly the question Croesus – then the most wealthy and powerful man alive and at the very top of his game – poses to Solon, then considered the wisest man alive: Can’t you say that I, Croesus, am happy and have lived well? Solon replies: “. . . the question you have asked me I will not answer, until I know that you have died happy. . . . Often enough God gives a man a glimpse of happiness, and then utterly ruins him.” “But mark this: until he is dead, keep the word ‘happy’ in reserve.”

Anyway, if it’s true what you say that we are not responsible for what we feel and a well-lived life is an emotional goal, then how could we be responsible for the one and not the other? Perhaps it’s not very dependent on feelings. You are right that when it comes to history Lukacs thinks we shouldn’t bother aiming for objectivity. I do not have the faintest idea of what you mean when you say “he’s got a very dualist notion of the mind.” In any event, I have argued in line with Lukacs that human knowledge and human life cannot be reduced to an objective/subjective dichotomy. There is something more, and whatever that something more is, it will never be reached via the thoroughly modern fiction of liberalism that points us merely toward feelings and/or the so-called scientific method.

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